Let us take a trip in the way-back machine.
We’ll dial it up for March 2010.
The community, the county, had been without a hospital for more than five years.
The state had stepped in February 2005 and closed Gulf Pines Hospital, which under various names had operated since the 1940s, and been through more trials than a witch at Salem in the 1700s.
Further, in 2010 the county, along with the rest of the nation, had experienced the Great Recession, the land boom the county had enjoyed coming to a screeching halt.
But on March 15, 2010, along U.S. 98, the ribbon was cut for what was then called Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf.
And 10 years later, a decade of health care later, Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf (Sacred Heart has long been part of Ascension Health) continues to grow and bless a community.
“Can you imagine 10 years ago and the journey we have been on,” said Roger Hall, President and CEO of Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf. “What a testament to Ascension. What a testament to the community.
“It’s an unbelievable story. If we were going to sit down and write a story about health care in Gulf County we couldn’t have scripted this.”
And, in a sense, the opening chapter was a bus ride civic leaders took to Destin to see Sacred Heart’s hospital in that community.
From there, to employ a much-used cliché, a constellation of stars aligned to bring the $38 million facility to the local landscape.
The St. Joe Company donated the land and $1 million in initial construction costs; and to repeat, did so sticking to the company’s pledge despite the downturn in the economy.
The Board of County Commissioners, after considerable debate, approved a half-cent sales tax to assist with uninsured and indigent care.
The Florida Legislature, particularly then-State Sen. Durell Peaden, provided an assist by amending a state law pertaining to Certificate of Need requirements: Sacred Heart was building a hospital ahead of the population, the amendment carved out an exception specific to Gulf County.
And the community undertook a fundraising campaign the likes of which may have not been seen before and certainly hasn’t since.
The evidence of that campaign, raising more than $2 million, can be found in the plaques throughout the hospital, from lobby to patient rooms, memorializing that community support.
“I am as proud of that hospital as anything we’ve done in this community,” said David Warriner, who along with wife, Trish, spearheaded much of the local fundraising. “(Trish) dove right in; we needed a hospital.
“There were some lean times during that period. But people like Henry Roberts (at the time the president of the Sacred Heart Foundation and a prime mover of the Gulf County project) kept the train on the track.”
Warriner said recalled thoughts about the late Billy Joe Rish, ill at the time, and the life-and-death drive to Bay County that would have to be taken in the case of a sudden attack or illness.
As it would turn out, shortly after the hospital opened, an Air Force officer walked into the lobby presenting the symptoms of a heart attack; he likely would have died on the way to Bay Medical and was immediately dubbed the “$38 million patient.”
“Through generosity and people coming together, we got it done,” Warriner said.
When the hospital opened, Hall remembered, there were just a handful of medical staff.
Within a year or so a medical office building went up on the campus and these days the parking lot is full of patients seeing specialists and family practitioners.
The hospital also sports the latest in medical technology, from CAT scans to more complex cardiology equipment.
Satellite clinics have been established in Wewahitchka and Franklin County.
A new physician and a new orthopedic surgeon recently came on board the hospital staff, Hall noted, “without missing a step.”
“We’ve attracted some great doctors and we are ranked consistently high for the extraordinary care people get there,” Warriner said.
In fact, Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf has consistently earned the highest ranking for not just patient satisfaction but also patient outcome.
Over the decade, the growth at the hospital has added about 150 new jobs to the local economy and has, Hall noted, been a job site for local students pursuing medicine.
Dr. Rachel Bixler, a Port St. Joe native, and her husband, also a physician, have practices at the medical office building.
“What a gift we have, some of the best and brightest in Port St. Joe can go out and they can get their education and return to work and serve people,” Hall said.
Of special pride for Hall is MyGulfCare, which was funded through a $2 million grant and provides outreach and services to the homebound and seniors.
MyGulfCare now serves 150 “of the most vulnerable people in two counties.”
“That has become something of a Petri dish,” Hall said, adding that the model is now being used at Ascension facilities in Destin and Pensacola.
“We can change mortality rates,” Hall said.
Hall said he would be retiring in July after 25 years in the health care industry, more than half of that with Sacred Heart.
The Port St. Joe hospital is a crowning achievement.
“Out of the few accomplishments I’ve been able to have in my 25 years, this is the biggest, what we have done in Port St. Joe,” Hall said.